Summer is here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means we’re half way through this annus horribilis that is 2020. Less than six more months of this crap to put up with before we can look back and truly gauge how awful 2020 was. And hopefully breathe a sigh of relief. So much has happened since March, which is part of what I now call “The Before Times”, that it’s hard to know what to say. What I’m interested in is where to go next, personally, professionally, and as a society. So, here’s where I am in July, 2020, and how I got here.
When I went into WFH mode in March, my primary concern was how to keep myself amused in the face of endless days of videoconferencing and none of the serendipitous human interactions that fill a day of working with other flesh and blood beings. I set myself a #hatoftheday challenge, blithely figuring my hat collection would get me through what I imagined to be a short, painful interruption in the arc of my long career in museums.
It was a strange kind of pandemic. A quiet one, with long walks down deserted streets, elaborate meals planned and cooked and consumed. We spent tremendous amounts of quality crossword puzzle time with most of the family. And worried about a future no one could predict. Two of my adult children were home with us and deemed “essential workers”. In a curious role reversal, they’d go off in the morning while my wife and I stayed home. Our major “job” was trying to keep my elderly mother from getting the virus and trying to maintain some adequate level of quarantine without going insane. “Work” was a long series of videoconferences, as my museum tried to walk the line of increasing our digital efforts, while keeping enough exhibition projects alive as possible, so that whenever we reopened, there’d be shows ready to go. I won’t go into more detail, because you all were living similar versions; the exhaustion, the glacial pace combined with frenetic effort. That feeling of being more connected and more alone than ever before. Everyday was Blursday followed by Sighday.
My Mum died pretty suddenly in late May, at home and in her sleep, and our life turned upside down again. Now instead of the constant demand of care-taking, we embarked on the ongoing process of winding up her affairs, and the mind-numbing paperwork that follows someone’s death. Time got even longer now without the rhythm of looking in on her morning, noon, and night. “You can cook spicy food again!” my daughter reminded us. We ate at our own table instead of down at hers. We cried, we tried to mourn without any of the rituals designed to comfort and bring closure. When we’ll be able to get together and celebrate her life is still an open question, and a wound that won’t heal. But at least there was work to do. Until there wasn’t.
The Federal stimulus money that my museum had received was due to run out in mid June, on my birthday of all days, because 2020. We were repeatedly told by the director that there’d be layoffs, and as soon as they knew how much they needed to cut, they’d do it and let us know. And one Wednesday morning, I got an email announcing a sudden all-staff meeting for noon. The director appeared, told us that today was the day, and people would be notified within the next hour if they were getting laid off. He made all the right noises about how sad this was, and the whole thing was over in four minutes. Imagine 270 people all continuously checking their email over and over again and you get the idea of what the next hour was like. The texts started rolling in, “So -and-so got the email.” “I’ve been let go!” And eighteen minutes later, I got mine. Effective the next day, two weeks severance. Email switched off a day later. Done.
And now a new reality appeared. I hadn’t come to terms with either of the two previous ones, but 2020 was being very much on brand. Over the next couple of days as the informal whisper networks did their work, we learned that all departments of the museum had been touched, except curatorial, a trend I watched play out across the U.S. art museum sector. Educators, interpreters, musetech folk; all expendable. Front of house staff, visitor services, security, maintenance; the one reliably diverse group of people the field boasts; decimated.
And the hits just keep coming. Announcements of major layoffs continue to appear in the press and on social media. Michelle Moon’s excellent crowdsourced museum layoffs spreadsheet had over 200 entries as of July 10th. Several major US museums are involved in painfully public spectacles as they repeatedly get caught trying to be on the right side of history while maintaining the old power relationships that got us here. It’s like watching an industry tie its own shoes together, inevitably trip, fall down a flight of stairs, and wonder what happened. There’s no end in sight either. The rushed reopenings in the U.S., all made in the name of “getting the economy going again” have led to more deaths, and now another round of closings and lockdowns. There’s seemingly no end in sight.
The trouble with despair is that it’s a seemingly bottomless well. No matter how far down you go, you can always go further. At this rate, what will the next six months hold?
So where to now, friends?
In the midst of this despair and anger, I came across an essay (in the Financial Times of all places) by the Indian author Arundhati Roy called “The pandemic is a portal” that spoke to my condition. It’s a tremendous piece of writing, and well worth your time. The last four paragraphs transform this from a keen piece of reporting into something truly universal.
What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.Arundhati Roy
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
As so much of the status quo in Western society is both being called out as fundamentally unjust, and being propped up with almost religious fervor, her admonition to choose is, to my mind, the essential choice for 2020. How do we go through? Clinging to the old ways, or choosing instead…? How do we go lightly? How do we stopping dragging all these carcasses around with us?
The imagery recalled to me the ending of Voltaire’s Candide, a book that feels strangely relevant in 2020, in a way it didn’t in 2019. It’s amazing how it resonates. The characters inhabit a world that suffers from all manner of malady; natural disaster, state-sponsored terror and murder, sexual assault, slavery, religious persecution; you name it, if it’s bad, it happens to at least one of the characters. And in the end, after all this suffering, Candide’s solution is to tell his companions, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” “One should work on one’s garden.”
Adam Gopnik wrote a piece in the New Yorker years ago that explored that last paragraph and described Candide’s admonition thus,
“By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “We must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action.”Adam Gopnik
That garden, that “better place we build by love,” could be that other world Roy invites us to imagine and step into. I already feel deep in my bones that lightness that comes from separation and loss. So much has been taken away; the need to try to “fix” an organization that doesn’t care to be fixed, and the burden of being complicit in the violence the industry inflicts on its workers, especially those least able to resist.
I wonder “What next?” How do we make the next world better than the one we are leaving? Gopnik’s take on Voltaire, that that the better place is “local, and concentrated on immediate action” is already happening. Look at the unionization efforts in the previously union-averse museum sector. Look at any of the tone-deaf platitudes that museums have employed for years in lieu of action, and look at how many of them have fallen flat this year and been publicly called out. The world is one fire, literally and figuratively, and all our individual efforts are infinitesimal measured against all that ails our world. But in our own little patch, there is work to be done.
As I sit at home for yet another day, wondering what’s next for me, and for the profession to which I’ve devoted the past three decades, what I’m left with are questions.
Which carcasses can I stop dragging along with me?
What luggage is it OK to leave behind, so I can walk more lightly?
What does that “better place we build by love” look like? Am I ready to fight for it?
What is my responsibility locally, and what immediate action can I take in my garden?
So, no answers yet. But there is one thing I am clear about: my belief in my community of practice: you all. The day I got laid off Blaire tweeted what I have thought every time the sector goes through a downturn and sheds a crop of smart, committed professionals.
How might we realize this kind of dream and build something new and light and fair and equitable?
Thank you, Ed.
Oh Mr. Rodley – your prose are now part of my garden. Ripe with a scent of fertile sheep manure aged into a compost rich with sorrows, lightness and potential. New times call for dramatic new growth and transformation will take everything we have. Thank you as always for raising your voice. And please know that I am so sorry for your loss.
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Thank you, Alice! You are one of the examples of successful reinvention I’ve been thinking of lately.
Thank you for this, really feeling it and sending strength your way as we all continue to ask and act and keep going.
This resonates…what to let go? And how to tend to our “garden….” Grow some food! We grow lettuce and tomatoes. I got a propane fire pit and it changed the relationship I have with my backyard. But the internal garden? How fertile is the soil and what seeds of change can I plant now while I am not distracted by winds of busy-ness? Thanks Ed, for sharing you thoughts, loss, and courage in the face of a really bad year. But in the words of Mr Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light comes in.”
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Hi Ed, beautiful post. I’m very sorry to hear about your mother’s passing.
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My inbox was piled with think pieces and reports on covid-19 daily stats, behavioral risk assessment frameworks, and other dense news when I saw your blog post pop into the top. I would usually reserve this as ‘weekend reading’ when all my chores are done, calls to family are completed, and college assignments submitted, but I just decided to read this at 11 pm tonight here in Delhi… and this introspective, raw, heartfelt post was just the sort of pre-bed ritual I needed. Thank you for articulating your memories and questioning the shape and form of possible futures. It’s nice that your writing has engendered this reflective space for shared understandings.
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Thanks for your comment. It strikes me as so 2020 that a post like this could count as bedtime reading, but compared to all the other stuff you’re consuming right now it is. I am glad it spoke to you. I hope your garden grows in unexpectedly beautiful ways.
Ed, this is a beautiful summary of what so many of us have been ruminating about, but so few of us have been able to articulate. We are saying goodbye, but we scarcely know what we’re saying goodbye to. There is so much sadness and pain, but the end of the book simply sets the stage for the next. All of the ambivalence remains about the project we dedicated our lives to, but we’ll miss the ambiguity and struggle. Anyhow, I remain your fan and can’t wait to see what your new garden grows!
Likewise, Dan. To next stages and new gardens!
Thank you for this post, Ed. My sincere condolences on your mother’s passing.
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Too much sorrow and reflection Ed Rodley. Beautiful is the expression of it. Empathy from down under. Liz Suda
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Australia started 2020 with bushfires extraordinaire and so the smoke severely impacted museums in NSW and the ACT before Covid – 19 hit. No tourists came and some museums closed because the smoke was so bad. I like to think that this is our time, the time for creatives and innovators to rethink some of our business models and also our sovereignty meaning that we need to rely more on ourselves. I feel that so many sectors of our economies have gotten lazy and sold out to taking the easy option. In the museum sector we gave gone the blockbuster and overseas tourist route for too long rather than drinking in some of Nina Simon’s ideas about building community and staying relevant. Certainly museums need to be savvy digitally but the sustainable business model must have number one priority as their collections, their workers and their repeat visitor/ member community. I think too many museums followed the marketing path and got greedy and in a crisis that model breaks down. Back to basics. What is our vision and who is our audience? Do we make them feel welcome? Are our museums safe spaces for the difficult topics of conversation and does our audience keep coming back for more? Tourists are great but might only come or connect online once in a lifetime – we need to be needed by local people who keep coming back.
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We “need to be needed”! Hear, hear!
Wonderfully written post – thank you. Supportive thoughts re your mother, PEM, life, “etc.” – all sounds far from “easy”…
Something I was reminded of reading your words, from a different field: “‘Moral Injury’ and the crisis in the healthcare field” (nothing to do with COVID per se).
“Physicians are the canaries in the health care coalmine, and they are killing themselves at alarming rates (twice that of active duty military members) signaling something is desperately wrong with the system.”
I share this as another example of things being “out of balance”, where perhaps COVID can catalyze some helpful “rebirth”.
I am so glad I found this post via Twitter. I was on sabbatical when the coronavirus hit, and I spent the fall in some of the best museums in the world, rapturously. I feel incredibly grateful to have a banquet of recent memories to feast upon in this bleak time, and I also lost my mother (only 81) on March 25 after a fast and shocking decline.
I am a minister trying to create meaningful worship and community gatherings from my computer and tech equipment, and trying to acknoweldge anxiety, grief and fear while also making meaning. What is possible? To what does this time call us? What are we being led to abandon, send out on rafts and shot with burning arrows?
Thank you so much for this, and for the link to Adam Gopnik’s article. I have printed out both for sermon fodder and personal reflection. I think one of the most abusive and laziest theological/philosophical positions ever articulated is also from Voltaire’s novel — Dr. Pangloss’ inane belief that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
Everything is not for the best except that we make meaning of it, and we find some remnant of beauty and meaning in it.
I wish you … all the best! I wish you everything you need.
Thank you so much , Victoria! I wish you the best as well.
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